Being happy at work is important, of course. Being with other people generally boosts mood, and ideally, meetings should be a source of energy, ideas, and collegiality.
But it doesn’t always work out that way. Meetings are also a place where people jockey for position, work out disagreements (nicely or not-so-nicely), and hurt each other’s feelings.
In one of my previous job incarnations, I worked in a meeting-intensive environment. After a while, I noticed that one person, when in a meeting, consistently made me feel angry and defensive—but I couldn’t figure out why. He never attacked me, in fact, he was nice to me. Or so I thought. Then I took a closer look at the kinds of things he said.
If you’re feeling annoyed or undermined at a meeting, consider whether any of these strategies are being aimed at you. And if you don't want to annoy or undermine other people, avoid talking this way:
1. “I don’t need all the details. Let’s just get to the bottom line.” The speaker implies that others are quibblers and small-minded technicians, while deflecting the possible need to master complicated details himself.
2. “Well, these are the facts.” The speaker emphasizes that she attends to hard facts, while implying that others are distracted by prejudice, sentiment, or assumption.
3. “You might be right.” The speaker seem open-minded while simultaneously undermining someone else’s authority and credibility.
4. “I’m wondering about ____. Pat, please get back to us on this.” The speaker demonstrates his habit of reasoned decision-making, while making Pat (who may not actually report to him) do the necessary work and report back.
5. “You did a great job on that, Pat!” The speaker shows a positive attitude, while showing that she's in the position to judge and condescend to Pat. (I must admit, I remember one incident where I did this very consciously. I was furious at someone, and at the next big meeting that we both attended, I patronizingly complimented him in a way that drove him nuts.)
6. “I think what Pat is trying to say is…” The speaker shows that he's a good listener and give credit to others, while demonstrating that he can take Pat’s simple thought further than Pat could.
7. “I can see why you might think that.” Variant: “I used to think that, too.” The speaker sounds sympathetic, while indicating that she's moved far ahead in understanding.
Of course, a person could say all these things without being undermining. It depends on context and motivation. Still, it’s useful to think about how seemingly innocuous comments might carry an edge.
What other actions make you unhappy in a meeting? When two people write each other notes or whisper, when someone is obviously reading unrelated material, when people argue about philosophical matters irrelevant to the matter at hand, or surreptitiously check a phone? What am I forgetting?